Job titles in VFX and CG: 3d Artists

Stereo “3d” movies have made terminology a bit confusing recently. When I refer to 3d, I mean the virtual 3-dimensional Cartesian system that exists inside the computer. 3d artists create objects that exist in that space and can be looked at from any angle (within the software, of course). When I use the term stereo,  I am referring to what viewers often call a “3d movie.” It gives the illusion of three dimensions by tricking the viewer’s eye into believing that objects on the screen are at different depths. That’s not really 3d, though, since no matter where you stand in the theater, you’re going to see the same image.  That is, you can’t get a different perspective, even though it feels like you should be able to. So, vocabulary lesson aside, I give you:

  • Modeler: Modelers create the 3d shapes that eventually become CG objects. Modelers are sort of virtual sculptors who can turn a few curvy lines into a spaceship or a simple cube into Shrek’s head. Entry-level modelers will make simple background props: the pitchforks the angry mob is carrying, or a pot-bellied stove in the corner of the witch’s house. Modelers often specialize into various kinds of geometry: hard-surface modelers create mechanical objects—tools or ships or cars, organic modelers make creatures and characters, and environment modelers make places—architecture and trees and mountains. Model making for games and for films are similar skills, but they require significantly different approaches. Game modelers must be concerned with optimization: the most detail and performance from the fewest number of faces. Film modeling requires far more detail to be built into the model; since it does not need to render in real-time, the quantity of data is less of a problem.
  • Texture Artist: The modeler creates the shape of an object, but the texture artist gives it color and other similar properties. Texture artists frequently work in 2d paint programs like Photoshop, but they must be well-versed in 3d concepts and tools. Texturing can also add another layer of shaped detail to a model through the use of bump and displacement maps. The texture artist may also be responsible for creating shaders, which creates some overlap with the next job:
  • Lighter: Just like in the real world, to see an object, it must reflect some sort of light source. Lighters place virtual lights into the 3d environment and adjust their properties, as well as the properties of the objects, in order to create scenes that look the way they are supposed to. For a scene that is meant to integrate with a live-action plate, that means closely matching the light that was present when the footage was shot. Lighters may also be involved in creating and configuring shaders: the algorithms that describe how light interacts with a particular kind of surface.
  • Matchmover/Tracker: If a live-action plate has camera movement in it, then the motion of the virtual camera that “shoots” the CG objects to be inserted needs to match that movement. The matchmover analyzes the scene and creates a camera in the 3d software that is identical to the physical camera that actually shot the plate. Similarly, if a CG object needs to match the motion of a real object in the scene (say, the sword needs to be engulfed in CG fire), then the matchmover will create a version of the real object in the 3d software. Matchmoving is a far more technical than artistic task. Sometimes matchmove of a character is called “rotomation,” a portmanteau of “rotoscoping” and “animation.” This involves using a 3d animator’s rig to match the character’s action precisely with an actor’s so that the actor can be entirely replaced or something can be added to them, like a bionic arm.
  • Layout artist: Once the matchmove has been done and the scene has been modeled, a layout artist will build a virtual set. The matchmoved camera is placed inside the scene, and the appropriate CG objects are imported and put into their places. Layout’s job is to make sure that everyone down-stream in the pipeline has the assets they need to do their work efficiently.
  • Animator: The actual performance of characters and behavior of CG objects is created by the animator. Animators use controls set up by the rigger (see below) to move the character much like a virtual puppet, but with the possibility of far finer control. The animator gives the character body language, causes it to walk, and lip syncs its face to a voice actor’s performance.
  • Rigger/Character Set-Up Artist: The animator’s controls are created by a rigger. Rigging is a very technical job that frequently involves some programming. It is still a bit more artistic a task than matchmoving, though, as the rigger must often create facial expressions for a character and determine things like how far a bicep bulges when the arm flexes. Rigging and animation both require a strong understanding of anatomy.
  • FX Artist: Visual effects shots often require things like laser blasts, smoke, explosions, animated water and other such effects. The FX animator creates these things and ensures that they interact properly with other objects and characters in the scene.
  • Technical Director: A technical director (TD) is someone who is more concerned with making systems than with working on individual shots. Their job is to make sure that all of the tools work properly and to set up controls that allow other artists to work efficiently. There is a lot of cross-over between TD and other job titles, particularly in the rigging, FX and lighting areas. Strong programming and math skills are very important to a TD.
  • Previsualization Artist: Previz is the process of planning an effect and/or effects shoot by creating it in 3d before trying to do it “for real.” By making low-quality animatics of the action, the previz artist helps the director to understand what is going to be shot and the challenges they will face in shooting it. Previsualization is frequently an outgrowth of the storyboard process. Storyboard artists make frozen, 2d drawings of the action, then the previsualization team makes rough 3d models and animates them based on the storyboards. In some cases, previz assets are further developed into production assets, blurring the line between pre-production, principle photography, and post-production. Recent advancements in visualization technology have even allowed previz artists to create these animatics on set, with the director able to see a live composite of the action in a virtual set, enabling greater creativity.

There are surely a number of other jobs associated with 3d in various facilities. These are merely the ones I am familiar with. Of course, the same is true of all of the other categories I’ve been describing with these posts.

Web admin for the Christian Gamers Guild and co-host of the Geek @ Arms podcast. Bryan primarily runs character-driven narrativist RPGs such as Primetime Adventures and Tales From the Loop.

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